A century ago, Franklin Mondell, a rock-ribbed Republican from Wyoming, blasted the public lands as “state socialism.” The federal management of the public domain was, he insisted, “outrageous an act of arbitrary power as a czar or sultan ever conceived.” The right-wing war on the federal public lands has intensified ever since. About one-fifth of the territory of the United States is overseen by the federal government. The Department of the Interior controls the private transactions on these estates, but with the twofold purpose to exploit for today and preserve for the tomorrow, the lands are plagued by mismanagement.
The great land robbery in the West has earned it critics over the years, especially from muckrakers and journalistic gadflies eager to expose to the malignancy of corporate monopolies and pay-dirt pirates. There are few writers who have matched the legacy of Bernard DeVoto, a former historian and columnist for Harper’s Magazine, who published an essay in 1934 called “The Plundered Province.” His brief history of mercantilism and land-grabbing in the American West countered the frontier wisdom that the region was a bastion of economic liberation — a safety valve where white men-on-the-make could settle and live out the myths of Horatio Alger. Instead, eastern capital treated the West and its resources like a colonial appendage for the Brahmin satrap.
Now, a contemporary Harper’s contributor has set out to update the DeVoto thesis for the twenty-first century. Christopher Ketcham’s nonfiction debut, This Land, builds on more than ten years of reporting and coverage of the public lands to “rake the muck” of a familiar western foe: the livestock industry. The book opens with a playful romp through Grand Staircase-Escalante (before the Trump administration pruned it back) where Ketcham delights in its wilds and wonders. He enters a reverie on that fact that the federal public lands system even “exists at all.” He then takes readers off the beaten path of National Monuments and National Parks and into the open range, where Ketcham is convinced that ranchers and livestock interests are the major culprits of privatization. He’s right, of course, that powerful coteries of cattleman control parts of the rural West, and that for a century and a half, stockgrowers and their “invasive species” — the cow — have trampled the region’s native grasses and ecosystems. Ketcham talks to botanists, biologists, and concerned citizens about the environmental catastrophe, and need for a “cow exorcism.”
The real bone of contention, though, is the betrayal of the public lands by its so-called custodians. The Feds have yielded too much ground over the years in land sales and seizures. The Bureau of Land Management, Ketcham writes, has failed to protect the people’s “commons” from the appetites of wealthy ranchers and cosplay cowboys. A case in point is the series of standoffs that led to the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016. On the scene, Ketcham interviewed rancher Cliven Bundy; he found no great mastermind — just a sleepy-eyed old man with a set of right-wing talking points acting as consiglieres willing to do his bidding. Yet the Bundy family got the better of the BLM in a pantomime of the Old West showdown. To make matters worse, Ketcham writes, other federal agencies, like Wildlife Services, largely function in industry interest, especially when it comes to trapping wolves, coyotes, sage grouse, and grizzlies. He interviews a number of whistleblowers, some of them ordinary people who have been caught in wildlife traps and poisoned with chemicals that are not officially inventoried. “For a while” Ketcham writes, “I made it my mission to make life hard for Wildlife Services.”
But to what end? The corrupt system has weak-willed political opponents. The public lands, largely forgotten back in Washington D.C., tend to elude scrutiny. The Big Green groups and the Democratic Party aren’t much help. As Ketcham says, they provide too much leeway for business-as-usual. Barack Obama, he reminds us, quoting one observer, was “out to lunch on the public lands” for most his presidency. Ketcham prefers to “lay demolitions under corrupt structures, blow them up, walk away,” because he has “no idea how to save the public lands from a system that marches on,” but he does provide a solution: stop capitalist development on hundreds of millions of acres of public lands and, whenever necessary, turn to Edward Abbey style “ecosabotage.” There’s nothing new in such plans. Frank and Deborah Popper notoriously proposed a similar scheme for a vacant “commons” in their academic article “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust” in 1987. It’s notorious because a lot of ranchers still begrudge the Poppers for it. Abbey’s essay collection, The Journey Home, expands on the real life consequence of ornery “ecosabotage” that he fictionalized in The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975).
The pastiche and parody of Abbey, a kind of Hunter S. Thompson figure for anarchic-environmentalists, sometimes muffles Ketcham’s own verve and voice. You can recognize Abbey’s performative manhood in Ketcham’s off-hand asides, like when Abbey tells readers that he camps in a small tent with only “enough room for me and one adult wolf or two women” and climbs mountains “naked except for a pair of boots and a hat.” It’s those overindulgent, romanticized expressions of machismo that, ironically enough, justified so much of the exploitation of the western states. The truth is, Abbey wrote of the white man’s West, and when Ketcham treats the public lands as a playground where “a man is so free” and can “sling an arrow, climb a tree, build a hut out of sticks, roam like the aboriginal tribes of the continent…” he effectively repeats those shortcomings. Public lands have always provided a playground for white men, and the creators of these domains, like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, actually sought as much. What’s missing in Ketcham’s story, then, are the tales of dispossession and expulsion of Native peoples, and the conservationist fears about “vanishing” races that first premised the creation of the public lands in the first place.
Ketcham’s searing, sharp prose, though, still makes This Land one of the best exposes on the public lands in recent memory. Now and in the future, the public needs more books like this one, in part because the federal domain harbors more than just livestock — it contains some of the largest fossil fuels reserves in the world. Ketcham’s focus on big-time ranchers and Wildlife Services misses the opportunity to make the connection between the public lands and the climate crisis, but several candidates in the Democratic primaries, at least, are promising to issue moratoriums on fossil-fuel extraction. This is crucial, because the scandal and corruption in the public lands has been sustained over the years by liberal apathy on “western” issues.
As a New Yorker, Ketcham recognizes this. “Public land,” one Manhattanite asks him: “you mean like Central Park?”
Back in Brooklyn, putting the finishing touches on This Land, Ketcham found a “spark of hope” from a young woman, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who told him that the public lands are “the most incredible socialist shit” ever conceived in the United States. “Well, that’s exactly right” Ketcham told her. She’s effectively repeating a century-old talking point of the right-wing, and though the irony is lost, it raises the prospect that Ketcham’s muckraking, like the best of its kind, may find itself pulled into a movement for fundamental change. Now, in an age of global climate crisis, the public lands require closer political scrutiny and oversight than ever before — and if it takes a movement of “state socialism” that Franklin Mondell so feared to rid these estates of fraud and force, so be it.
By Christopher Ketcham
Penguin Random House
Published July 16, 2019
Christopher Ketcham has been published in Harper’s, CounterPunch, National Geographic, Hustler, Penthouse, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, Sierra, Earth Island Journal, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and Salon.
This Land is his first book.